The Christian character of classical music

This post is best enjoyed either with Chopin’s first ballade, Liszt’s Les Preludes, or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy  playing in the background.

“My father was a musician by the grace of God” spake the mighty Johann Strauss in 1887, and it so happens that God is seldom associated with classical music nowadays. Most commenters and analysts often stress the intellectual aspect of classical music; the complex melodies, the vertical harmonic structures, the motifs ect… Yet very few consider the spiritual dimension of this monumental genre, which is a shame to my mind, as it neglects an important lens though which we might enhance our appreciation. What differentiates western classical music from its various counterparts in Asia is the emphasis of harmony over melody. South Asian classical music emphasizes melody, rhythm, but operates without harmony.

 

What is harmony? According to Wikipedia: “In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords.” But what is it’s function in the western classical tradition? I believe its function is to impose order and balance, which imitates God’s order in the Universe. Christian theologians like St Augustine believed that order and symmetry were the key components of beauty (echoing the views of Aristotle) and it is my (inexperienced) view that harmony is to music as what symmetry is to visual art.

 

It’s been said that civilizations communicate their worldviews through art, and if this is so, what then is classical music’s raison d’etre? I believe it is to convey beauty, a sublime beauty that transcends physical form. Saint Augustine believed that beauty was an attribute of God and that He was the very manifestation of beauty, hence all that was perceived as beautiful in the world was merely a shadow of God’s beauty. The astute reader would no doubt see a parallel between Augustine’s conception of beauty with Plato’s theory of forms, where beauty has a perfect form which transcends the world and thus possesses an ontological basis to its existence; hence the beauty present in the world shares in the ultimate form of beauty. I believe that it is precisely this sort of beauty that classical music attempts to convey, thus magnifying its power over our spirits a hundredfold in comparison to other modes of art. It is through experiencing this beauty that one glimpses the face of God. Beethoven once said:

“The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul. Music is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.”

Franz Liszt expressed a similar sentiment decades later when he said:

““The church composer is both preacher and priest, and what the word fails to bring to our powers of perception the tone makes winged and clear”.

 

But what does it all mean? I can only but illustrate from my own personal experience. When I listened to the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony for the first time, I was moved to tears. The beauty of the piece spoke not to my intellect, not to my emotion, nor to any faculty which I possessed that bound me to the physical world; but spoke directly to my soul. It was in that moment that I glimpsed the face of God. Sensory perceptions are converted to electrical signals which must then be interpreted by the brain, but when something communicates directly to one’s soul, no interpretation is necessary as the only faculty required to grasp it is one’s own humanity.

The second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony conducted by the magnificent Carlos Kleiber.

 

I had a similar experience when I listened to Chopin’s first ballade for the the very first time. Much of Chopin’s music, in terms of form and format, was influenced by the Polish religious music he was exposed to as a child. While Chopin was nowhere as vocal about his Christian religious beliefs as Beethoven, Liszt, and Bach, some sources indicate that he was a somewhat observant Catholic in private. Chopin’s music communicates a tranquil stillness, a fleeting moment of beauty that once elapsed, can never come back. Some compositions, notably his waltz in C Sharp minor (op 64), evoke in my mind the image of morning dew on leaves.

 

In a strange twist of fate, the romantic era of music was juxtaposed onto the Enlightenment, the latter embodied the West’s intellectual energies whereas the former it’s spiritual energy. The flowering of classical music amidst the mechanistic environment of rampant materialism and cold science speaks to its enduring capacity to reorient man toward the ultimate aim of civilization: To build a better man. If the Enlightenment was a revolution of the material order against the spiritual one, I would then conclude that the romantic era of music was a spiritual revolution against the materialist one; a revolution embedded within a revolution.

Is Classical music Christian? In terms of genre, perhaps not. In terms of character, most certainly.

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45 Responses to The Christian character of classical music

  1. Eren Jäger says:

    Handel’s Messiah is definetly Christian. Lately I have been obsessed with Mideval Classical Music. Dota, do you ever listen to Mideval Era Classical Music? There are some fine Gregorian Chants and where would Baroque Era masters such as Bach and Pachebel be without Mideval?

    Another obsession is Bach’s violin and cello. No one plays violin like Bach, although Mozart could possibly contend for 2nd place. Mozart has some pretty short Symphonies, and I love the short symphonies Mozart composed as a child. Bach’s violin sonatas are amazing, I spend several hours a day listening to them. Baroque Era music was slightly better than Romantic or Classical Era in my opinion. Very few masters can contend with Baroque.

    Beethoven’s Ode To Joy is ironically the least favorite movement of the 9th Symphony to me. I like the 9th best up to 40 minutes in. Ode to Joy contains too much exhuberance and uplifting tones, I prefer Beethoven’s melodramatic and depressed tones.

    • Dota says:

      I do like Baroque, it has it’s quaint charm, but I still prefer the romantic era, it’s very fresh, even today. Never tried Medieval, might be worth checking out.

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Not really into the whole “fresh” vibes the Romantic Era gives off. For many listeners of Classical music, this may be the case, since even in Classical Music there is a “whats hot, whats not”. I love medieval, and for me, antiqueness=better music. Gregorian chants from that era are great, as are string instruments and folk instruments.

    • miki says:

      No surprise at all, Religión has inspired music or art or architecture in many cultures in the world.

      • miki says:

        Lol oops, someone posted that song in Robert Lindsay’s blog and i copied it in the memory of my computer, the song i wanted to post was this

  2. Eren Jäger says:

    The Royal Philarmonic Orchestra plays it best. White children should definetly listen to Classical Music. The Orient is taking over Classical Music, and I am not OK with that.White kids need to start listening to Bach, Liszt, Grieg, Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and stop listening to Taylor Swift, Eminem, Cheif Keef, Ar-Ab, Skrillex, and the like of those heathen pollutors of our Western seed. White countries need White culture, Africans can have all the rap, pop, tribal, reggae, etc, and the Orient can have all the Psy, K-Pop, J-Pop, etc.

    • Dota says:

      Asians have certainly taken a fancy to classical music. When I first got into classical music some 5 years ago, the very first pianists I was exposed to were Asians: Yundi Li, Lang Lang and Jung Lin. I do share your sentiment though, whites need to play an active role in preserving their own heritage.

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Asians are becoming the new White people. Already they are 60% of the world population and the largest immigrant group to America. They are planting foreign interests in sub Saharan Africa, they are immigrating to Latin America en masse. We are all royally screwed, and all this could have been avoided if Abraham Lincoln had never decided to stay sober on January 1, 1863.

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Typo. If Abraham Lincoln HAD decided to stay sober on January 1, 1863.

      • miki says:

        In Robert Lindsay blog someone posted a Japanese song, Asians have their Enka genre, i didn’t know that existed, Japan is very Pop now.

    • ale says:

      I posted those miki : D , By the way Whites also made contributions to Pop and Rock, read the damn Wikipedia, even the electric guitar was made by a White: The Stylistic origins of Rock were Rock and roll, electric blues, jazz, FOLK, COUNTRY, blues, rhythm and blues, soul and the Pop was made of: Traditional pop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, jazz, FOLK, doo-wop, DANCE, CLASSICAL, popular music. Anyways as a Otaku girl i listen to Jpop and to Enka :)

      • ale says:

        Also Whites in United States should listen more to RANCHERA MUSIC :) , i know, is tipically listened by Hispanics, however ironically ,all those Mexican genres were inspired by European genres like Polka or Waltz and were developed by Whites in Mexico (the “Criollos”) ,is like how Pop is the favorite music of Asians even if they didn’t created it, likewise, Ranchera is the favorite of Mexicans even if they didn’t created it, this song is from a Spanish Singer Ranchera ;)

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Good music, ale. In return, might I recommend that you go on YouTube and type “The Best Of Baroque” and listen to the 2 hour video by halidonmusic? I am on a mobile device at school so I can’t embed YouTube (JewTube) vids at the momento.

      • miki says:

        I like more Venezuelan Gaita than Mexican Ranchera.

  3. Eren Jäger says:

    For Dota. Listen to above 3 Medieval Classical Music.

  4. Eren Jäger says:

    European royalty was not above composing Classical Music. Denis: King of Portugal, was a Medieval Era composer. If it is good enough for a King, then it is good enough for White children today to listen to.

  5. mixedraced says:

    East Asians have produced the best classical type music. I’ve never become psyched up listening to western classical, but East Asians know how to make music which moves you.

    • Eren Jäger says:

      Alright Axum, then I would like to see you post some Asian Classical Music so I can compare for myself. I don’t mean video game OST’s, I mean Traditional music made back then. You are part Black; I would expect a Black man to have a good sense of music.

  6. Movenon says:

    Western music started out similar to musical traditions in Middle East and Asia, but several hundred years ago continued to develop harmonic innovations while the trend with other regions developed in other ways, heterophony etc. There wasn’t much “harmony” as we hear in Beethoven or Chopin during the Dark Ages, not until the late Middle Ages.

    To me the most remarkable thing about Western music is that it kept innovating and developing, rather than stagnating in the orthodoxy of tradition. Compare the technological innovations in musical instruments over the past centuries; trumpets and horns back in Bach’s day were super clunky and had a limited range of notes. But rather than glorifying these clumsy instruments on pedestals and proclaiming them “traditional,” with improvement unnecessary and immune to critique and evaluation, Western musicians never quit improving the designs of the instruments, using advancements in physics and acoustics to optimize the instruments into the vastly improved versatile, polished forms they have today, with the older natural horns and such only being used for period performances and the like these days.

    While the orchestra has sort of become set these days, I personally hope that the spirit of improving instrumentation continues. Recent advances in acoustics and technique in the past decade have resulted in totally revamped double basses for example, but they haven’t caught on yet, although double bass is definitely one of the instruments in the orchestra that seriously needs modernization. There is most definitely still room for improvement, as always, for example hopefully the violin family developed by Carleen Hutchins will catch on one day, though even her initial blueprints have already been improved on.

    I believe that this mindset of innovation and improvement is definitely nurtured by Western culture, which itself is focused on future progress rather than complacently dwelling on past achievements, numerous though they are. Nonetheless, other cultures that realize this and commit to putting aside notions of sticking to “tradition” are capable of reaching great advances in turn; if you look at Chinese classical music, that spirit of improvement is definitely there, and under many generations of forward-looking reformers, Chinese musical instruments have been acoustically refined and developed in a manner similar to that of the West, and on a level not yet seen in musical instruments of South Asia or the Middle East. For example this piece here Hua Yanjun, early 20th century) is definitely in part of the same classical tradition as a guqin piece written several centuries ago, just as Prokofiev’s music is in the same tradition as Bach’s music centuries before.

    • Eren Jäger says:

      Movemon, modern instruments such as the synthesizer and electric guitar are much less pleasing than piano or violin.

      • Movenon says:

        Sorry if it was unclear, but I was talking purely about acoustic instruments. Though you can hear Vivaldi trumpet or horn concertos on modern trumpets or french horns, those instruments are vastly different from the trumpets and french horns actually played at the time, thanks to technological innovations since the 1800s. If you see a Baroque chamber orchestra using period instruments you can immediately see the difference, particularly with french horn.

        And If you’ve never heard of Carleen Hutchins and her work in string instrument design (violin, cello, and the rest of the line), it’s worth a look. As an amateur double bassist, I can vouch that there is a huge improvement over the double bass that has been used over the past several centuries and continues to lug down the orchestra to this day. And innovative luthiers have since improved on her original model as well.

        My point was that while lots of cultures with musical traditions of their own cling to their musical instruments as they are, citing “tradition,” and are not interested in improving them to expand tonal range or versatility, although Chinese instruments make an interesting exception. If the West had clung to its 1600s trumpets, flutes, horns, etc. out of tradition, much (if not all) of the music written by Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bartok and everyone else would have been physically impossible to perform and carry out.

        I am personally not at all a fan of synthesizer or electric guitar, though to each his own.

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Me neither. Fuck the synthesizer. Violin and cellow for da wiin! School just statred so I have to cut my Classical Musik listenin’ time from 5 hours a day to 2. I am listening to some Bach right now, and man can he play a string. Bach has more rythm than Beethoven. God I am going to start getting up at 5 for an hour and half more listening time fo da Classical Music.

    • Dota says:

      Interesting point about innovation.

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Dota, are you a Brahmin or Kshatiyra?

      • Dota says:

        Neither, I’m a Vaish ie merchant/trader caste. The third Aryan caste. My ancestors converted to Islam in the 12th century.

      • Eren Jäger says:

        Who do you find more pleasing, Bach or Beethoven? I can’t decide myself. Beethoven tickles you, and Bach tucks you in and blankets you. Mozart sprinkles water on you and Grieg is like chocolate; slimy-sticky but gold and delicious at the same time. I never really cared much for Strauss or Schumann or Schubert, and Mahler was a composer of maladies; but Handel is like aloe vera with iceicles. Sorry for all the outrageous similes, during intense OCD I can attach the qualities of an object to music for some whack ass reason.

  7. Eren Jäger says:

    I personally feel like the piano and violin/cello are the greatest Classical instruments. Of course, flutes can play their role, and trumpets are showy, but nothing beats the top Two.

  8. Eren Jäger says:

    I am taking a tangible step to save my European heritage; I am composing Classical style Music. I learned how to compose in August, if I compose anything worthwhile listening to, I will upload it to my blog; Coward’s Blog. I won’t ever come close to what Beethoven or Mendelssjohn and Co. accomplished, but I may be able to reach Mahler’s level in 25-40 years (not really).

  9. Eren Jäger says:

    Bach-the master violinist, has an estimated IQ of 165.

  10. WmarkW says:

    I’m an atheist, and it’s my belief that since we now know that religions are not true, they should best be interpreted as a form of art. Not just the traditional arts that spawn from them, but the religions themselves are an artistic interpretation of mankind’s place in the universe.

    Christianity has a very good central dogma to interpret secularly — being human, we’re all sinners and need forgiveness, so we have to forgive others theirs. From this, you can create an elaborate mythology about virgin births and immaculate conceptions, that are just allegories about the life of humans.

  11. Derek says:

    Nice post. My friend/neighbor Wolfgang linked me to this site. He is the guy known as “Coward” and he has his own blog now.

  12. Priyamvada Jain says:

    The harmonium ruined traditional Indian music.

  13. Priyamvada Jain says:

    Much of European classical music is beautiful and soothing while much of it is foreboding and gloomy. Like a musical rendition of some of the culture, art and symbolism.

  14. Todd Lewis says:

    This article is truly one of the gems on the net today. Most blogs are just echo chambers for people’s deranged pathologies, but a sober evaluation of religion and music in the western tradition is not usual fare these days. I would challenge Dota’s preference of Romantic Music to Baroque. Medieval, Baroque and Classical Music are the highest expression of reason and mathematical ratios in music, the Romantic era, with out a doubt was genius, but began to replace reason with emotion and passion. This displacement of reason with passion, I believe has reached its culmination in the trashy pop music of Madonna and Justin Bieber. This is not to say that Beethoven gave us Bieber, but to say that the process of replacing reason with passion, in music had negative consequences beyond what the Romantics could have imagined. Handel’s Messiah is, in my humble opinion, the highest expression of the Faustian (not Goethe, but Spengler) spirit in Western Civilization, it is the apotheosis of reason, harmony and form.

    • Dota says:

      You have a point, but bear in mind that the romantic era was a response to the excessive rationalism and materialism of the enlightenment. I must confess that even though I am not religious I certainly felt religious when writing this article, a sort of closeness to God. I think you might find this article of particular interest: “Why the brain sees maths as beauty”

      • Todd Lewis says:

        “bear in mind that the romantic era was a response to the excessive rationalism and materialism of the enlightenment.”

        I can defiantly see the point in that, but I think the soulless rationalism of the enlightenment is better confronted by the en-souled classical-christian civilization. Romanticism is heart without reason and the enlightenment is reason without heart. The two need to be brought together. I believe that Classical-Christian civilization has done better than either alternative in performing that union.

    • coward says:

      This album should be considered a Classic, though not a classical genre. My grandpa introduced me to Elvis and I love it.

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